Blog Post

Do you know what happiness is?

14th August 2013 |

As the story goes, a man walks up to his son and asks him if he would like some Smarties. Son says that would be fab, so father happily gives him 5 Smarties. In doing so he asks the son whether he is happy with his 5 Smarties, and he in turn declares his delight with the gift. Man then turns to other son and similarly asks whether he would like some Smarties. As expected son says yes, and father gives him 10 Smarties. Second son delighted, but first son now rather peeved. Why asks father – just 2 minutes ago you were happy with what you had, why are you now not happy?

Apparently, according to a ‘Happy Planet’ survey, the happiest place to live is Costa Rica. 8 out of the top 10 happiest countries in the world are in Central or South America, with Vietnam and Jamaica filling the other top ten places. The UK is 41st. The Scandinavian countries, often identified as the most equal societies on the planet, with equality often cited as a key to happiness, do not do conspicuously well. Sweden, Norway and Denmark are all in the top 6 allegedly most equal countries, and yet Sweden manages 52nd on the Happiness list, Denmark 110, with only Norway hitting top quartile with 29. Certainly outright wealth is no arbiter either – Qatar is second to bottom on the happiness list, just below Bahrain and Kuwait.

Accepting that the measures for both equality and happiness are likely to be open to serious debate, and that equality is certainly far too complex to even think about, it does suggest that equality, of itself, does not bring happiness. And yet we live in a society where poverty is measured relative to what the guy next door earns – or how many Smarties you have. A Poverty and Social Exclusion report published in March this year suggests that 12 million people in the UK are too poor to engage in common social activities considered necessary by the majority of the population. This is proposed as a ‘social exclusion’ model of poverty, but surely this sounds more like a way of identifying normality than poverty, and suggests that people that are not ‘normal’ are poor, so can we assume that poor people are not happy? If you cannot be poor and happy, then following the logic of social exclusion, to be happy, you must be normal.

If the stereotypical way of life in Jamaica, and the happiness it engenders, is anything to go by, then I am all for not being normal, for surely the supposed Jamaican way of life does not fit the ‘common social activities considered necessary’ measure. It fits the ‘sitting on the beach drinking rum and dancing’ measure – (which perhaps says more about stereotypes than it does normality – but I enjoyed the thought!).

Many of the people that we support would be considered to be socially excluded, possibly due to being poor, and perhaps also because they are not seen as normal. But it is not clear to me that happiness is the result of conforming to an everyday view of normality – it is not about being ‘equal’ or ‘normal’ in those terms – assuming we could agree what Normal or Equal actually means.

So I don’t worry whether my brother has twice as many Smarties as I do. But I do worry that people are measuring outcomes for the people we support against an odd view of normality, and an unclear vision of what happiness feels like. 

Do you know what happiness is?

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